The call comes through mid-afternoon: “You’re saying a cobra is in your house?” queries Laurie Day, to the person on the other end of the line. “You’re sure it’s a cobra? Ok, tell the kids to stay two metres back, we’re on our way.”
Day and her colleague, Julia Walters, are halfway through their eight-hour day shift as volunteer members of Singapore’s Animal Concerns Research and Education Society’s (Acres) Wildlife Rescue Team. On call 24/7, it’s the Acres hotline you call if you come across an injured squirrel in your garden, find a crow with a broken wing or, in this case, spot an unwanted snake slithering under your sofa.
Within 15 minutes, their black rescue van, adorned with the charity’s distinctive blue monkey logo, pulls up in front of a terrace house close to a patch of forest in the Bukit Timah area. The family who called about the snake can be seen through the large front window, huddled together on the staircase, peering down at something perched atop a red bucket in the centre of the living room.
“It’s an equatorial spitting cobra, a little one,” says Walters, with what sounds like a slight hint of disappointment, as she peers through the glass. Situation reviewed, the pair head to the back of the van, select some metal grabbers and a large plastic container from their collection of boxes, hooks, ladders and nets, before returning to the fray.
The capture is straightforward and over in minutes, with Day securing the venomous snake with clippers before calmly dropping it into the plastic container. Rescue over, the family reveal that it’s not the first time a cobra has visited, an ever present hazard of living so close to nature.
Handling deadly snakes is all in a day’s work for the Acres team, as is liberating monitor lizards from drains, crocodiles from golf course ponds and pythons from the back of lorries — indeed, they aim to help any wild animal in Singapore, including those smuggled in via the illegal wildlife trade.
It was the sight of young chimpanzees being mistreated back in 2001 that first inspired animal lover Louis Ng to found the organisation. Realising that there was no local organisation campaigning for animal protection, he decided to set up Acres with a small group of like- minded individuals. The charity, which celebrates its 20th anniversary next year, remains dedicated to championing the welfare and rights of wild animals in need.
“Our goal is not just to rescue animals but, most importantly, to change mindsets,” explains Ng, who is a Member of Parliament. “To ensure that people see what goes on behind the scenes in terms of animal cruelty, and to inspire and mobilise them to take action to end the injustice.”
Rescued animals are usually taken to the Acres Wildlife Recovery and Rehabilitation Centre (AWRC), where they will be examined by the resident vet, Dr Venisri Raj, before being rehabilitated and, if possible, eventually released back into the wild.
Located on a quiet road in Lim Chu Kang, AWRC stands out from the neighbouring plant nurseries and fish farms thanks to the main building’s colourful animal mural and the cage out front for the public to leave injured animals. Opened in 2013, AWRC normally houses around 150 animals, a veritable Noah’s Ark of birds and beasts that can include anything from baby treeshrews and grumpy grey herons to palm civets and bull pythons, not to mention their collection of tortoises and iguanas, long-term residents rescued from the exotic pet trade. Caring for this menagerie are 21 paid staff and an army of volunteers — and it’s getting busier with every passing year.
In the whole of 2015, Acres handled 6,541 calls. But this year alone, it had received nearly 11,000 calls by mid-October. In fact, 2020 is the first time it’s consistently averaged over 1,000 calls a month. One reason for this increase is major new development projects like Punggol and Tengah Towns, which have seen more green and wild spaces, home to many native species, cleared and replaced with landscaped human habitats in recent years.
“We already see this leading to more wild animals being sighted,” points out Kalai Vanan Balakrishnan, one of Acres’ two deputy chief executives.
Speaking in Parliament in March, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee, outlined the government’s bold ambition to “transform Singapore into a City in Nature to provide Singaporeans with a better quality of life, while co-existing with flora and fauna on this island”.
Lee went on to clarify how they will achieve this aim through the development of an additional 200 hectares of nature parks, 300km of nature ways and 500km of park connectors. They are also looking to enhance 30 hectares of forest, marine and coastal habitats and have recovery plans for over 70 native animal and plant species. All of this is slated to happen by 2030.
While a greener approach to urban planning is laudable and continues the NParks’ decades-long policy of consciously wilding the environment, the question is whether Singaporeans are really ready for this greater interaction with the natural world?
“For example, the addition of all the park connectors across the island, people don’t realise that these aren’t just for the use of humans,” explains deputy chief executive Anbarasi (Anbu) Boopal. “That attracts animals and birds, and that leads to issues.”
Indeed, it’s at hotspots like park connectors and nature ways, the places where “wild” Singapore butts up against the modern city, that Acres already focuses a lot of its time and effort. This is where many of the interactions between Singapore’s human and wildlife populations take place.
“This current generation [of families] has grown up so far from nature, it’s just very nervous,” says Kalai, of the general attitude to wild animals. “People don’t always realise that for the most part, this wildlife is meant to be there, and it doesn’t pose a threat.”
As well as being a source of many calls, these touch points are also the focus of Acres’ Wildlife Management Team. They work closely with NParks and other stakeholders to help educate people on what to do when a dog-faced fruit bat takes up residence in your roof or a troupe of long-tailed macaques start raiding your condominium’s bins. Indeed, these highly intelligent monkeys adapting their behaviour to access easy food sources, be it from hand feeding or poor disposal of waste food, often leads to potential conflicts.
In practical terms, that means visiting hotspots to talk to people about the reasons behind the animal’s behaviour and explaining how removing potential food sources will ensure the monkeys eventually move away of their own accord.
“Education is so important,” states Kalai, a former designer who’s worked full-time at Acres for nine years.
Tackling the public’s general lack of awareness and increasing compassion for wild animals are the twin ambitions of Acres’ dedicated education division. Pre-Covid, their work included hosting school visits to the Wildlife Rescue Centre and going to schools and offices to highlight the issues facing Singapore’s wildlife. Now, they run virtual tours of the facilities and are trialling school talks via Zoom, potentially allowing classes to watch wildlife rescues in real time.
They are also active on social media, offering tips on everything from how to interact with wild boars to why a simple rubber cord can stop monkeys raiding your bins. In all of their communications, the aim is to get people to understand that Singapore’s animals need our support, not suspicion.
Educating the public is a major aspect of handling the hotline calls. Many callers aren’t really sure of what they’re seeing, often mistaking monitor lizards for crocodiles and palm civets for racoons; others are deeply distressed about animals like bats and non-venomous snakes that are actually harmless and are simply minding their own business.
“People are by far the hardest part of the job,” admits Day. “The challenge is getting them on the side of the animal, they often just see the creature as a pest that needs to be taken away.”
“We always try and take an extra five minutes to show them the animal and educate them about the reasons for its behaviour,” adds Walters. She and Day are a wealth of information, a result of their six years combined experience volunteering with Acres, and they work hard to share that knowledge on every rescue.
Whether that’s explaining the differences between rock and zebra doves to borrowing a family member’s phone to take a video of the captured cobra, it’s all about getting the public to safely engage with and appreciate the animals.
“There’s definitely been an increase in people being more willing and more accepting of creatures they see in the wild,” says Anbarasi optimistically, when asked if people’s attitudes have changed over the past 10 years. “But it’s still the biggest challenge we face.”
That, and the logistical challenges of running a charity on limited resources. For starters, Acres only has one rescue van to handle rescues across the island. Every rescue also incurs treatment and rehabilitation expenses. As a gauge, it costs $50 a day to feed their collection of turtles and $200 to rescue and rehabilitate just one baby bird.
While they do work as a contractor for NParks, usually dealing with incidents related to monkeys, snakes and bats, they don’t receive any dedicated government funding. The majority of their income is generated from public donations, which have been impacted by the pandemic. Most significantly, their annual fundraising gala was cancelled this year, which meant a big loss in donations.
“Of course we’d love to be sustainable and have solid reserves but the reality is that we’re a small charity, so it’s really difficult,” admits Anbarasi.
By the end of their shift, Walters and Day have received over 30 calls to the hotline, visited six separate rescue sites and have a cobra, a concussed treeshrew and two monitor lizards (one badly injured after being hit by a car) stored safely in the back of the van.
It’s been a typical (albeit slightly quiet) day for the team, yet an important one in their continuing battle to help our wild neighbours maintain their own space to thrive and survive within Singapore’s City of Nature.
However, there is only so much Acres can do. Straight-talking Kalai succinctly sums up the bigger issue when he asks: “Are Singaporeans ready to accept nature as it is or are we only willing to accept butterflies, songbirds and dragonflies?”
This story first appeared in the December 2020 issue of A Magazine.